Real-looking explosions. Live action. 3D. When we think of animated movies nowadays, the bar is high. We want them to appear so authentic, palpable and realistic that we sometimes forget the joy of watching an old school animated film. Not to mention the abundance of talent and imagination that go into hand-drawn movies, also known as cel animation.
Cel animation was incredibly widespread throughout the 20th century, which is why it probably fills us with nostalgia. The process can appear somewhat outdated nowadays as the use of computers and digital manipulation grows wildly, but the charm of an old school film has yet to disappear. “The name comes from how cel animation was traditionally done,” explain the production experts at Frantic. “Draft drawings were created during the planning process” which were then transferred onto plates “made using flexible sheets of colourless and transparent plastic called Cellulose Nitrate”. This developed through the years, but the alluring style stayed the same.
So, to pay homage to cel animation, let’s reminisce about the most loved hand-drawn films that still make us feel sentimental.
1. Spirited Away
Starting with a Japanese anime film is no coincidence. We tend to immediately think of classic Disney stories when we hear ‘hand-drawn movies’, but anime is one of the longest-standing genres of cel animation. Spirited Away is the most famous and successful film from the award-winning Studio Ghibli production house and renowned director Hayao Miyazaki, and is the only anime to have won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. It is a quintessential anime animation generally and the Ghibli style specifically, with crazy looking creatures and an atmospheric environment. This strikes a perfect balance between authenticity and fantasy, with real-looking characters and wondrous ghouls.
The story follows 10-year-old Chihiro who finds herself in a supernatural realm after her parents are transformed into pigs. Determined to find out why and make them human again, she must work for the spirits to free her parents and herself from this bizarre world, experiencing plenty of adventures along the way. The plot is culture-crossing and caters for all ages, and is gripping at every turn.
2. The Iron Giant
Set during the Cold War, this American sci-fi is one of the most moving films produced by Warner Bros and created by Brad Bird, whom you may know from other animated knockouts such as The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Dealing with intense issues of state violence, ethics as well as friendship, it is a classic for adults and children alike. The Iron Giant features the voices of famous actors such as Jennifer Aniston and Vin Diesel, and gained the status of a cult film despite its failure at the US box office at the time of release.
The plot deals with a huge metal robot (hence the name) who crashes in Maine in 1957, shortly after the launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite by the USSR. A child named Hogarth finds him and ‘adopts’ him. However, when a xenophobic government agent comes sniffing around, Hogarth has to start concealing the Giant’s identity, as the military refuses to believe he’s friendly and tries to destroy him. Even though the film came out in 1999, the animation style is consciously reminiscent of the flair of 1950’s and 1960’s Disney flicks, which gives it an even more nostalgic vibe. The animators studied the design of Looney Tunes, Dennis the Menace and New York Times caricatures from that period, and were particularly inspired by 101 Dalmatians –– which we’ll talk about in a second.
3. 101 Dalmatians
Finally, a Disney production. This 1961 movie has been a children’s favourite since its release, never ageing. And with the perfect villain –– who’s even getting her own feature film –– and cute dogs (did we mention there’s 101 of them?), it’s no wonder a 1996 live action adaptation was produced. However, the charm of the original animation can never be competed with, which is ironic considering the film followed years of box office failure for Disney animation, and basically revived the department. Interestingly, the film used a Xerox machine for the puppies, which gives it even more authenticity when you watch the Blu-ray version and notice the pencil marks. Like all the films in this list, though, the animation isn’t the only brilliant and innovative part of this flick –– it’s also the story.
When Pongo the dog falls in love with a dalmatian named Perdita after he spots (see what we did there?) her in Regent’s Park with her owner, Anita, he nudges his human to court her. They all move into a big house, and Perdita and Pongo have 15 puppies. However, Anita’s former classmate Cruella De Vil attempts to steal them to make a fur coat, forcing the neighbourhood animals to band together to fight for them back.
4. Yellow Submarine
Yellow Submarine is based on the music of The Beatles and even features a cameo from the group. This trippy classic, animated by Heinz Edelmann, focuses on the music-loving residents of Pepperland and their enemies, the Blue Meanies, who have a vendetta against anything musical. As our dear Pepperlandians try to escape their unharmonious fate, Sergeant Fred Pepper manages to take his submarine and call for help in Liverpool, convincing George, Paul, John and Ringo to save Pepperland.
Nothing about the film follows the laws of physics, making it into a quintessential 1960’s experience that benefits massively from the vibrant hand-drawn animation. The techniques used are novel and interesting –– at some point the animation is made of postcards! –– which put this film on the map for reasons other than the big names behind it. In fact, unlike many other films about the band, Yellow Submarine was a huge success, and is John Lennon’s favourite Beatles movie. Even The Simpsons’ writer, Josh Weinstein, claims that this film is the basis of modern-day animation, including his own.